Standing up for Canberra

Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment II Bill 2012

The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012 introduces a number of significant innovations aimed at improving gender equality. It will broaden the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 to encompass women and men, particularly their caring responsibilities. Also, for the first time, employers will be required to report on the gender composition of their boards. This is particularly dear to my heart, and I am very pleased that it is included in the bill. Smaller organisations with fewer than 100 employees will not be required to report, but they will be able to access the Workplace Gender Equality Agency's advice, education and incentive activities.

It is important to note that reporting will now be made easier for businesses and that it will be more meaningful and useful to them. Contrary to what those opposite have said, the minimum standards have been developed in consultation with industry and will provide employers with the capacity to assess and understand gender equality within their workplaces compared year by year with other workplaces within the industry.

We are removing red tape by allowing businesses to report online. The requirement for organisations to develop workplace programs will also be removed, and employers will now report against a set of gender equality indicators focusing on outcomes for both women and men in the workplace. Over time, the improved and standardised data will enable the minister to set minimum standards to target attention on areas where improvements are most needed. Minimum standards would be intended as an evidence-based way to identify and focus assistance on employers that require some direction on gender equality.

I am sure that, through this new reporting mechanism, many businesses will be able to focus more on gender equality, which will have a long-term benefit for their business. We want this bill to make reporting simpler and more useful for business so that business can achieve measurable progress. Many businesses may not be aware that, for example, having more women on their board will bring a different perspective to problems and issues that arise. I have spoken to many crusty old men on boards who are really appreciative of the views women can bring to the table on a whole range of issues, such as disability and access. I am sure that they would not mind me calling them 'crusty old men', because they are the ones who brought these issues up and have acknowledged, themselves, that they are crusty old men.

These are men who I have been on boards with in the past. They are wonderful men with a wealth of experience and expertise, and I am sure they would not mind me calling them that. They get it. They understand that greater diversity on their boards is in their companies' best interests. They understand it is a good thing.

We need to help more businesses realise this potential. It is reassuring that the big four banks are actually leading the way when it comes to increasing the number of women on boards. Other sectors doing well include diversified financials, telecommunications, transportation and insurance. However, companies engaged in commercial and professional services, consumer services and our big retailers rate poorly.

Another important element of this bill will enhance the agency's advisory and education functions. One of the functions of the agency will be to develop industry based benchmarks in relation to gender equality indicators. The agency will also have a more specific role in providing assistance and advice in relation to improving performance against any minimum standards, and it will have an important role in developing, maintaining and reporting on the data it collects across business, government and the community.

This bill improves the transparency and fairness of the compliance framework and the consequences of noncompliance, but it does not actually alter the compliance from the original legislation—the legislation introduced by the Howard government. Contrary to suggestions by those opposite, we have not changed it. More resources will mean the agency will be able to better ensure that all employers who should be reporting are actually reporting. The agency will be able to do small-scale compliance reviews to make sure employers are fulfilling their obligations under the act. Employers will be required to inform employees and shareholders that a report has been lodged, and employers will need to notify employees and employee organisations of the report's lodgement and be provided with an opportunity to comment.

A consequence of not complying with the act without any reasonable excuse is that in the company or business may be named in parliament or more widely. Fairer, more consistent measures for ensuring that the government deals only with organisations that comply with the act will be developed.

It is important to outline exactly what the new objectives of the Workplace Gender Equality Act will be. The key new principal objectives are to: promote and improve gender equality, including equal remuneration between women and men, in employment and in the workplace; support employers to remove barriers to the full and equal participation of women in the workforce, in recognition of the disadvantaged position of women in relation to employment matters; promote amongst employers the elimination of discrimination on the basis of gender in relation to employment matters, including in relation to family and caring responsibilities; foster workplace consultation between employers and employees on issues concerning gender equality in employment and in the workplace; and improve the productivity and competitiveness of Australian business through the advancement of gender equality in employment and in the workplace.

These new objectives are more far-reaching and put the focus more on gender equality in the workplace. The bill now strikes the right balance between the need to drive and encourage change within business, without increasing the regulatory burden.

Those opposite might try to argue against the qualities of this bill. They may try to argue it is not necessary legislation and that these are not issues our parliament should be concerned with. But I disagree. There has been extensive consultation with industry, employee organisations and the women's sector in the drafting of this legislation. There is a need for this legislation and we have reached a point where the all parties are comfortable with what we are proposing.

This is progressive legislation. It is legislation that will take Australian businesses forward and help shape the kind of workforce we want for the future. It is not good enough that in 2012 Australia is ranked 23rd on the World Economic Forum's 2011 Global Gender Gap Index, way behind countries like New Zealand, Cuba and Spain. It is not good enough that the average superannuation balance for Australian women is 40 per cent below that of men, with average payouts half those of men. It is time to take the necessary steps forward to address this gap before it gets any worse.

As I mentioned earlier, this bill is the result of an important review by the Office for Women in the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. It is clear that gender equality is essential if we are to maximise Australia's productive potential and ensure continued economic growth. As I said earlier, it has been estimated that closing the gap between men's and women's workforce participation could boost gross domestic product by 13 per cent. That really is the bottom line here. Gender equality is not just a social policy; it is an economic policy. The government is determined to improve women's economic security—and this begins with fair and equitable treatment in the workplace. It is simply good economics to improve gender equality in our workplaces, and this bill does so by placing gender equality in the workplace firmly under the spotlight.

This is a sophisticated and meaningful package of reforms. It is a significant step forward that will enable employers and the government to measure and drive better outcomes for women and men in Australian workplaces. I commend the bill to the House.

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